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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: how_to1.htm

How to become a hacker



Hacker Scene


                           How To Become A Hacker

Why This Document?

As editor of the Jargon File, I often get email requests from enthusiastic
network newbies asking (in effect) "how can I learn to be a wizard hacker?".
Oddly enough there don't seem to be any FAQs or Web documents that address
this vital question, so here's mine.

If you are reading a snapshot of this document offline, the current version
lives at http://www.ccil.org/~esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html.

What Is A Hacker?

The Jargon File contains a bunch of definitions of the term `hacker', most
having to do with technical adeptness and a delight in solving problems and
overcoming limits. If you want to know how to become a hacker, though, only
two are really relevant.

There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking
wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first
time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members
of this culture originated the term `hacker'. Hackers built the Internet.
Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet.
Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if
you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call
you a hacker, you're a hacker.

The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There
are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics
or music -- actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science
or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may
call them "hackers" too -- and some claim that the hacker nature is really
independent of the particular medium the hacker works in. But in the rest of
this document we will focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers,
and the traditions of the shared culture that originated the term `hacker'.

There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but
aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of
breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call
these people `crackers' and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers
mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and
object that being able to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more
than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer.
Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the
word `hacker' to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.

The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.

If you want to be a hacker, keep reading. If you want to be a cracker, go
read the alt.2600 newsgroup and get ready to do five to ten in the slammer
after finding out you aren't as smart as you think you are. And that's all
I'm going to say about crackers.

The Hacker Attitude

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom and
voluntary mutual help. To be accepted as a hacker, you have to behave as
though you have this kind of attitude yourself. And to behave as though you
have the attitude, you have to really believe the attitude.

But if you think of cultivating hacker attitudes as just a way to gain
acceptance in the culture, you'll miss the point. Becoming the kind of
person who believes these things is important for you -- for helping you
learn and keeping you motivated. As with all creative arts, the most
effective way to become a master is to imitate the mind-set of masters --
not just intellectually but emotionally as well.

So, if you want to be a hacker, repeat the following things until you
believe them:

1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.

Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes lots of
effort. The effort takes motivation. Successful athletes get their
motivation from a kind of physical delight in making their bodies perform,
in pushing themselves past their own physical limits. Similarly, to be a
hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving problems, sharpening your
skills, and exercising your intelligence.

If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll need
to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'll find your
hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and social
approval.

(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning capacity -- a
belief that even though you may not know all of what you need to solve a
problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn from that, you'll learn
enough to solve the next piece -- and so on, until you're done.)

2. Nobody should ever have to solve a problem twice.

Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn't be wasted
on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinating new problems
waiting out there.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of other
hackers is precious -- so much so that it's almost a moral duty for you to
share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away just so
other hackers can solve new problems instead of having to perpetually
re-address old ones.

(You don't have to believe that you're obligated to give all your creative
product away, though the hackers that do are the ones that get most respect
from other hackers. It's consistent with hacker values to sell enough of it
to keep you in food and rent and computers. It's consistent to use your
hacking skills to support a family or even get rich, as long as you don't
forget you're a hacker while you're doing it.)

3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.

Hackers (and creative people in general) should never be bored or have to
drudge at stupid repetitive work, because when this happens it means they
aren't doing what only they can do -- solve new problems. This wastefulness
hurts everybody. Therefore boredom and drudgery are not just unpleasant but
actually evil.

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe this enough to want to automate
away the boring bits as much as possible, not just for yourself but for
everybody else (especially other hackers).

(There is one apparent exception to this. Hackers will sometimes do things
that may seem repetitive or boring to an observer as a mind-clearing
exercise, or in order to acquire a skill or have some particular kind of
experience you can't have otherwise. But this is by choice -- nobody who can
think should ever be forced into boredom.)

4. Freedom is good.

Hackers are naturally anti-authoritarian. Anyone who can give you orders can
stop you from solving whatever problem you're being fascinated by -- and,
given the way authoritarian minds work, will generally find some appallingly
stupid reason to do so. So the authoritarian attitude has to be fought
wherever you find it, lest it smother you and other hackers.

(This isn't the same as fighting all authority. Children need to be guided
and criminals restrained. A hacker may agree to accept some kinds of
authority in order to get something he wants more than the time he spends
following orders. But that's a limited, conscious bargain; the kind of
personal surrender authoritarians want is not on offer.)

Authoritarians thrive on censorship and secrecy. And they distrust voluntary
cooperation and information-sharing -- they only like `cooperation' that
they control. So to behave like a hacker, you have to develop an instinctive
hostility to censorship, secrecy, and the use of force or deception to
compel responsible adults. And you have to be willing to act on that belief.

5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.

To be a hacker, you have to develop some of these attitudes. But copping an
attitude alone won't make you a hacker, any more than it will make you a
champion athlete or a rock star. Becoming a hacker will take intelligence,
practice, dedication, and hard work.

Therefore, you have to learn to distrust attitude and respect competence of
every kind. Hackers won't let posers waste their time, but they worship
competence -- especially competence at hacking, but competence at anything
is good. Competence at demanding skills that few can master is especially
good, and competence at demanding skills that involve mental acuteness,
craft, and concentration is best.

If you revere competence, you'll enjoy developing it in yourself -- the hard
work and dedication will become a kind of intense play rather than drudgery.
And that's vital to becoming a hacker.

Basic Hacking Skills

The hacker attitude is vital, but skills are even more vital. Attitude is no
substitute for competence, and there's a certain basic toolkit of skills
which you have to have before any hacker will dream of calling you one.

This toolkit changes slowly over time as technology creates new skills and
makes old ones obsolete. For example, it used to include programming in
machine language, and didn't until recently involve HTML. But right now it
pretty clearly includes the following:

1. Learn how to program.

This, of course, is the fundamental hacking skill. In 1997 the one language
you absolutely must learn is C (though it's not the one to try learning
first thing). But you aren't a hacker or even merely a programmer if you
only know one language -- you need to learn how to think about programming
problems in a general way, independent of any one language. To be a real
hacker, you need to have gotten to the point where you can learn a new
language in days by relating what's in the manual to what you already know.
This means you should learn several very different languages.

Besides C, you should also learn at least LISP and Perl (and Java is pushing
hard for a place on the list). Besides being the most important hacking
languages, these each represent very different approaches to programming,
and all will educate you in valuable ways.

I can't give complete instructions on how to learn to program here -- it's a
complex skill. But I can tell you that books and courses won't do it (many,
maybe most of the best hackers are self-taught). What will do it is (a)
reading code and (b) writing code.

Learning to program is like learning to write good natural language. The
best way to do it is to read some stuff written by masters of the form,
write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a little more, read a lot
more, write some more ... and repeat until your writing begins to develop
the kind of strength and economy you see in your models.

Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were few large
programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read and tinker with.
This has changed dramatically; open-source software, programming tools, and
operating systems (all built by hackers) are now widely available. Which
brings me neatly to our next topic...

2. Get one of the open-source Unixes and learn to use and run it.

I'm assuming you have a personal computer or can get access to one (these
kids today have it so easy :-)). The single most important step any newbie
can take towards acquiring hacker skills is to get a copy of Linux or one of
the BSD-Unixes, install it on a personal machine, and run it.

Yes, there are other operating systems in the world besides Unix. But
they're distributed in binary -- you can't read the code, and you can't
modify it. Trying to learn to hack on a DOS or Windows machine or under
MacOS is like trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast.

Besides, Unix is the operating system of the Internet. While you can learn
to use the Internet without knowing Unix, you can't be an Internet hacker
without understanding it. For this reason, the hacker culture today is
pretty strongly Unix-centered. (This wasn't always true, and some old-time
hackers aren't happy about it, but the symbiosis between Unix and the
Internet has become strong enough that even Microsoft's muscle doesn't seem
able to seriously dent it.)

So, bring up a Unix -- I like Linux myself but there are other ways. Learn
it. Run it. Tinker with it. Talk to the Internet with it. Read the code.
Modify the code. You'll get better programming tools (including C, Lisp, and
Perl) than any Microsoft operating system can dream of, you'll have fun, and
you'll soak up more knowledge than you realize you're learning until you
look back on it as a master hacker.

For more about learning Unix, see The Loginataka.

To get your hands on a Linux, see the Where To Get Linux.

3. Learn how to use the World Wide Web and write HTML.

Most of the things the hacker culture has built do their work out of sight,
helping run factories and offices and universities without any obvious
impact on how non-hackers live. The Web is the one big exception, the huge
shiny hacker toy that even politicians admit is changing the world. For this
reason alone (and a lot of other good ones as well) you need to learn how to
work the Web.

This doesn't just mean learning how to drive a browser (anyone can do that),
but learning how to write HTML, the Web's markup language. If you don't know
how to program, writing HTML will teach you some mental habits that will
help you learn. So build a home page.

But just having a home page isn't anywhere near good enough to make you a
hacker. The Web is full of home pages. Most of them are pointless,
zero-content sludge -- very snazzy-looking sludge, mind you, but sludge all
the same (for more on this see The HTML Hell Page).

To be worthwhile, your page must have content -- it must be interesting
and/or useful to other hackers. And that brings us to the next topic...

Status in the Hacker Culture

Like most cultures without a money economy, hackerdom runs on reputation.
You're trying to solve interesting problems, but how interesting they are,
and whether your solutions are really good, is something that only your
technical peers or superiors are normally equipped to judge.

Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keep score
primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is why you aren't
really a hacker until other hackers consistently call you one). This fact is
obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work; also by a hacker-cultural
taboo (now gradually decaying but still potent) against admitting that ego
or external validation are involved in one's motivation at all.

Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a gift culture. You
gain status and reputation in it not by dominating other people, nor by
being beautiful, nor by having things other people want, but rather by
giving things away. Specifically, by giving away your time, your creativity,
and the results of your skill.

There are basically five kinds of things you can do to be respected by
hackers:

1. Write open-source software.

The first (the most central and most traditional) is to write programs that
other hackers think are fun or useful, and give the program sources to the
whole hacker culture to use.

(We used to call these works "free software", but this confused too many
people who weren't sure exactly what "free" was supposed to mean. Many of us
now prefer the term "open-source" software).

Hackerdom's most revered demigods are people who have written large, capable
programs that met a widespread need and given them away, so that now
everyone uses them.

2. Help test and debug open-source software

They also serve who stand and debug open-source software. In this imperfect
world, we will inevitably spend most of our software development time in the
debugging phase. That's why any open-source author who's thinking will tell
you that good beta-testers (who know how to describe symptoms clearly,
localize problems well, can tolerate bugs in a quickie release, and are
willing to apply a few simple diagnostic routines) are worth their weight in
rubies. Even one of these can make the difference between a debugging phase
that's a protracted, exhausting nightmare and one that's merely a salutary
nuisance.

If you're a newbie, try to find a program under development that you're
interested in and be a good beta-tester. There's a natural progression from
helping test programs to helping debug them to helping modify them. You'll
learn a lot this way, and generate good karma with people who will help you
later on.

3. Publish useful information.

Another good thing is to collect and filter useful and interesting
information into Web pages or documents like FAQs (Frequently Asked
Questions lists), and make those generally available.

Maintainers of major technical FAQs get almost as much respect as
open-source authors.

4. Help keep the infrastructure working.

The hacker culture (and the engineering development of the Internet, for
that matter) is run by volunteers. There's a lot of necessary but
unglamorous work that needs done to keep it going -- administering mailing
lists, moderating newsgroups, maintaining large software archive sites,
developing RFCs and other technical standards.

People who do this sort of thing well get a lot of respect, because
everybody knows these jobs are huge time sinks and not much fun as playing
with code. Doing them shows dedication.

5. Serve the hacker culture itself.

Finally, you can serve and propagate the culture itself (by, for example,
writing an accurate primer on how to become a hacker :-)). This is not
something you'll be positioned to do until you've been around for while and
become well-known for one of the first four things.

The hacker culture doesn't have leaders, exactly, but it does have culture
heroes and tribal elders and historians and spokespeople. When you've been
in the trenches long enough, you may grow into one of these. Beware: hackers
distrust blatant ego in their tribal elders, so visibly reaching for this
kind of fame is dangerous. Rather than striving for it, you have to sort of
position yourself so it drops in your lap, and then be modest and gracious
about your status.

The Hacker/Nerd Connection

Contrary to popular myth, you don't have to be a nerd to be a hacker. It
does help, however, and many hackers are in fact nerds. Being a social
outcast helps you stay concentrated on the really important things, like
thinking and hacking.

For this reason, many hackers have adopted the label `nerd' and even use the
harsher term `geek' as a badge of pride -- it's a way of declaring their
independence from normal social expectations. See The Geek Page for
extensive discussion.

If you can manage to concentrate enough on hacking to be good at it and
still have a life, that's fine. This is a lot easier today than it was when
I was a newbie in the 1970s; mainstream culture is much friendlier to
techno-nerds now. There are even growing numbers of people who realize that
hackers are often high-quality lover and spouse material. For more on this,
see Girl's Guide to Geek Guys.

If you're attracted to hacking because you don't have a life, that's OK too
-- at least you won't have trouble concentrating. Maybe you'll get one
later.

Points For Style

Again, to be a hacker, you have to enter the hacker mindset. There are some
things you can do when you're not at a computer that seem to help. They're
not substitutes for hacking (nothing is) but many hackers do them, and feel
that they connect in some basic way with the essence of hacking.

   * Read science fiction. Go to science fiction conventions (a good way to
     meet hackers and proto-hackers).
   * Study Zen, and/or take up martial arts. (The mental discipline seems
     similar in important ways.)
   * Develop an analytical ear for music. Learn to appreciate peculiar kinds
     of music. Learn to play some musical instrument well, or how to sing.
   * Develop your appreciation of puns and wordplay.
   * Learn to write your native language well. (A surprising number of
     hackers, including all the best ones I know of, are able writers.)

The more of these things you already do, the more likely it is that you are
natural hacker material. Why these things in particular is not completely
clear, but they're connected with a mix of left- and right-brain skills that
seems to be important (hackers need to be able to both reason logically and
step outside the apparent logic of a problem at a moment's notice).

Finally, a few things not to do.

   * Don't use a silly, grandiose user ID or screen name.
   * Don't get in flame wars on Usenet (or anywhere else).
   * Don't call yourself a `cyberpunk', and don't waste your time on anybody
     who does.
   * Don't post or email writing that's full of spelling errors and bad
     grammar.

The only reputation you'll make doing any of these things is as a twit.
Hackers have long memories -- it could take you years to live it down enough
to be accepted.

Other Resources

Peter Seebach maintains an excellent Hacker FAQ for managers who don't
understand how to deal with hackers.

The Loginataka has some things to say about the proper training and attitude
of a Unix hacker.

I have also written A Brief History Of Hackerdom.

I have written a paper, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which explains a lot
about how the Linux and open-source cultures work. I have addressed this
topic even more directly in its sequel Homesteading the Noosphere.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Will you teach me how to hack?

Since first publishing this page, I've gotten several requests a week from
people to "teach me all about hacking". Unfortunately, I don't have the time
or energy to do this; my own hacking projects take up 110% of my time.

Even if I did, hacking is an attitude and skill you basically have to teach
yourself. You'll find that while real hackers want to help you, they won't
respect you if you beg to be spoon-fed everything they know.

Learn a few things first. Show that you're trying, that you're capable of
learning on your own. Then go to the hackers you meet with questions.

Q: Would you help me to crack a system, or teach me how to crack?

No. Anyone who can still ask such a question after reading this FAQ is too
stupid to be educable even if I had the time for tutoring. Any emailed
requests of this kind that I get will be ignored or answered with extreme
rudeness.

Q: Where can I find some real hackers to talk with?

The best way is to find a Unix or Linux user's group local to you and go to
their meetings (you can find links to several lists of user groups on the
LDP page at Sunsite).

(I used to say here that you wouldn't find any real hackers on IRC, but I'm
given to understand this is changing. Apparently some real hacker
communities are attached to things like GIMP and Perl have IRC channels
now.)

Q: What language should I learn first?

HTML, if you don't already know it. There are a lot of glossy,
hype-intensive bad HTML books out there, and distressingly few good ones.
The one I like best is HTML: The Definitive Guide.

When you're ready to start programming, I would recommend starting with Perl
or Python. C is really important, but it's also much harder.

Q: But won't open-source software leave programmers unable to make a living?

This seems unlikely -- so far, the open-source software industry seems to be
creating jobs rather than taking them away. If having a program written is a
net economic gain over not having it written, a programmer will get paid
whether or not the program is going to be free after it's done. And, no
matter how much "free" software gets written, there always seems to be more
demand for new and customized applications. I've written more about this at
the Open Source pages.

Q: How can I get started? Where can I get a free Unix?

Elsewhere on this page I include pointers to where to get a Linux. To be a
hacker you need motivation and initiative and the ability to educate
yourself. Start now...

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Eric S. Raymond 


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